Embalming is a widespread practice in Ireland due to the public expectation that they will be able to view the deceased as well as the length of time it takes to round up people for a funeral. The use of formaldehyde in the embalming process was brought to light again in recent months following the publication of research by Dr. Roberts of Harvard’s School of Public Health which suggested a possible link between occupational exposure to formaldehyde and ALS. Although formaldehyde is classified as a Group 1 carcinogen by IARC, this is the first time that exposure to formaldehyde has been linked to a motor neuron disease.
The use of formaldehyde is restricted under the Biocidal Products Directive however, the EU Commission have not banned its use in embalming and taxidermist fluids due to opposition from the funeral industry in many countries including Ireland where it is claimed embalming is central to Irish traditional wake customs.
Historically arsenic was the embalming preservative of choice however, following its banning, formaldehyde became the embalmers preservative of choice and today is the prime ingredient of practically all embalming solutions on the market. Modern embalming fluids are mixtures of formaldehyde, other chemicals and water and contain between 5 and 50 % formaldehyde depending on the part of the body. An average embalming session can use over 11 liters of embalming fluid potentially exposing the embalmer to high levels of formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is such a popular preservative as it preserves the body long enough for presentation to the public and for shipment in some cases and keeps the deceased looking as lifelike as possible. Less toxic alternatives to formaldehyde include iodine and glutaraldehyde however they have proved less popular as they do not deliver the same results and are more costly.
The recent research indicating a link between formaldehyde exposure and ALS needs to be approached with caution however as funeral directors might be at a higher risk because of other embalming chemicals, bacteria and toxins carried on the bodies they embalm. Additionally, jobs involving high intensity of formaldehyde are relatively rare, hence the difficulty in confirming such an association.
Taking this into account however, the use of a Group 1 carcinogen is never advised in the workplace and the development of an alternative to formaldehyde which delivers the same results should be a priority.
- Andrea Roberts (2015) J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry doi: 10.1136/jnnp-2015-310750